As the Director of Entrepreneurship and Economic Development for the National League of Cities, Jenn Steinfeld ’18 is at the forefront of using the art of mindfulness to bring economic and racial justice to thousands of cities across the country. And she credits her groundbreaking work at Lesley University as a big part of how she got here.
In 2016, Jenn, a longtime yoga practitioner and meditator, had an instinct and a drive to take the art of mindfulness further. She just wasn’t sure exactly how.
“I wanted to study something that felt really resonant to me (and) to deepen my own practice.”
Like most of us searching for something and unsure where to start, Jenn turned to the internet. That’s where she first heard of Lesley’s unique Mindfulness Studies master's degree program.
“I thought, ‘Really, a master’s in mindfulness? Is that really a thing?” she recalls. “And sure enough it was really a thing and Lesley was a highly-rated university.”
Intrigued by the curriculum and the program’s flexible, low-residency format that makes it possible to study while working full-time, Jenn spoke with the department chair to learn more.
“It had the kind of rigor that I was looking for, and the kind of seriousness that I was looking for in an academic program,” she says, “but also had a commitment to the cultural practice that I was looking for as well.”
Using mindfulness to interrupt white supremacy
Every master’s program requires a thesis. And for Jenn’s first three semesters, she planned on exploring the connection between mindfulness and leadership. But out in the world, racial tensions were reaching a crisis point, and she was working at an educational institution with a problematic legacy.
“It was founded on the slave trade and they weren’t looking deeply at their own practices and interactions,” she says, “and I saw how that mirrored this culture of white supremacy that we were talking about in an academic way.”
Jenn believed she had a unique opportunity to use her graduate studies to apply the practice of mindfulness to anti-racism, and unravel the ways that white supremacy is embedded in education.
“Jennifer’s thesis project explores how mindfulness gives us a practical tool for grappling unflinchingly with the impacts of racism and injustice, and how to merge personal experience with structural analysis to work collectively toward change,” says Assistant Professor of Mindfulness Studies Melissa Jean.
Jenn’s Lesley thesis, Mindful Practices to Interrupt White Supremacy in Higher Education: Opportunities for Educators in Service Learning and Community Engagement, has been downloaded over 600 times since it was published in January 2019, which is notable for thesis papers.
“The curriculum Jennifer developed is a useful tool for anyone seeking to incorporate the transformative potential of intersectional contemplative praxis into higher education classrooms and administrative settings,” adds Melissa, who worked with Jenn to craft her thesis into a co-authored academic article that was published in the Journal of Contemplative Inquiry in December 2019.
Jenn is humbled by the impact of her research and scholarship.
“It moves me,” she says, “and I do get messages from people from time to time about how they’re using it.”
Strengthening relationships through mindfulness
Today, in her role as Director of Entrepreneurship and Economic Development for the National League of Cities, Jenn uses a racial justice lens to bring much needed economic development to hundreds of cities across the country each year.
She uses mindfulness to facilitate difficult conversations that advance understanding around the economic imperative of addressing racial injustice.
“Only so many people want to address racial justice head on,” says Jenn. “It helps us to pause and to be able to listen to each other and to connect to each other with passion, and that’s a really important thing to be able to do when having discussions about historical injustice.”
Her passion for the work is also personal.
“My roots for engagement in racial justice are personal... Seeing how my own family benefited from Jewish assimilation into whiteness. My grandparents had a very racialized experience of being Jewish, and my sister and I really don’t. I mean, we’re just white people, living with white privilege in America, and that’s a result of a lot of very intentional policy decisions.”
She believes mindfulness is a tool to help us work on cultural shifts.
“It gives us a moment of stopping and saying, ‘What’s really happening here?’ and ‘Where is my space that I can move within that?’”
Much more than yoga, mindfulness can advance an organizational mindset
In a relatively short period of time, mindfulness has begun to catch on in businesses and industries all over the country and the world. Jenn sees the inherent value of using mindfulness not only in the way she evaluates her own role, but as a mindset an entire organization can incorporate into their daily routine.
“I can tell you that four years ago when I was applying to get a graduate degree in Mindfulness Studies, it was like, ‘Is that really a degree?’” she recalls with a laugh. “Right now, I say I have a master's degree in Mindfulness Studies and people say, ‘Oh, wow, that's really interesting. I want to know more about that.’
“I think that there’s a growth in mindfulness. Within my organization, we start all our meetings with just a simple mindfulness practice. We’re recognizing that we’re all coming from somewhere else now, even virtually. We’re still thinking about where we were and just taking a minute.”
Today Jenn’s Lesley experience remains a part of her life, as do her fellow alums.
“We stay in touch and we have a very active Facebook group that we’re always bringing new students into,” she says. “We’re sharing ideas and reflecting on courses that we wanted to take that we would recommend. It’s a really wonderful community to be a part of.”
Learn more about Mindfulness Studies
In addition to our low-residency master’s degree program, you could also pursue a 15-credit graduate certificate program in Mindfulness Studies. Many of our students start with the certificate and continue through to the master’s degree program.
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